North East charity Wildlife Ark Trust in red squirrel vaccine row

Squirrel vaccine drive raising leads to clash over fund raising between rival charities trying to save the reds

A red squirrel, with a nut in it's mouth at Kielder Forest
A red squirrel, with a nut in it's mouth at Kielder Forest

A small charity based in the North East which raised £300,000 to kick start work into a vaccine to save red squirrels now claims it is being cold shouldered as the next phase of research nears.

The Wildlife Ark Trust (WAT) started to raise funds in 2006 for research into a vaccine to fight the squirrelpox virus, which is spread by grey squirrels and kills native reds.

The trust said they handed over the £300,000 to the Moredun Research Institute near Edinburgh.

By the end of 2012, an effective vaccine candidate had been discovered, said WAT, “however, it was not the finished article and now needed to be modified.”

WAT said it then heard that a meeting had been held at the Scottish Parliament building, and among those present was the Scottish National Party’s Environment Minister and the Red Squirrel Survival Trust (RSST), which is based in Northumberland.

“In a decent world, the WAT would have thought that if a charity had been so successful with a vital scientific project to protect a threatened native animal if other organisations and governments wished to progress that project, they would have approached that charity and offered their help under the leadership and banner of that charity,” said the trust.

“Yet, for some reason, it was not asked to attend the meeting.

“As the Scottish government was well aware that the vaccine research was the WAT’s project, common decency, if not common sense, should have been sufficient to ensure that the WAT’s name was first on the invitation list.”

WAT now claims that it is being “effectively excluded from its own project.”

It is also concerned that, as it launched its own vaccine appeal, the RSST also sent out a similar appeal letter, which could confuse potential donors.

WAT said: “The ploy that is now being used is to ask ‘does it matter who is doing the work?

“This carries the implication that by fighting to retain ownership of its own project, the WAT is somehow hindering the vaccine work.

“If it does not make any difference who is doing the work, then surely the decent and logical decision would be to hand over the funding to the charity which initiated the work, owns the intellectual property to the vaccine and has largely funded the work to the tune of £300,000.

“The question overlooks the fact that, without all the WAT’s hard work and funding, there wouldn’t be a vaccine.”

Janet Wickens, director of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, said: “RRST has not excluded the WAT from this research project.

“We work with a wide range of organisations in many different ways.

“Our objectives include funding research and we raise funds to be used for that purpose. There are a lot of organisations and individuals working in this way.

“We applaud the considerable achievements of WAT. They funded the research into a vaccine which ended in 2012 and we are trying to help get that research under way again.”

The Moredun Research Institute said: “The institute has undertaken work on poxviruses of sheep and cattle for many years, but more recently has extended this to investigate squirrelpox virus which is nearly always fatal in red squirrels and associated with their significant decline in the UK.

“Our aim is to use the best possible endeavours of our world renowned scientists in providing a vaccine and a solution to squirrelpox disease.

“The WAT provided financial support for research into development of a novel vaccine for squirrels, and as a result holds the rights to the intellectual property related to the vaccine, if and when it is successfully developed.

“The research into the vaccine is not yet complete and requires further development.

“Moredun Research Institute has not yet looked for funding beyond the current phase of work, and when we do come to look at the future research, we are prepared to undertake research funded by any charities or organisations who wish to contribute to protecting red squirrels against this devastating disease that is spreading rapidly. “

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government is firmly committed to protecting the red squirrel.

“The Scottish Government and agencies spent around £6m in the period 2009-2013 on work to protect red squirrels.

“A similar amount will be provided through the next Scottish Rural Development Programme and through project funding by Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland.

“We have also pledged £40,000, in response to a plea made by stakeholders, towards the next phase of vaccine research and have sought and obtained the agreement of DEFRA, Welsh Assembly Government and Northern Irish Executive to also provide their own funding contributions.”

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